For years, Park I Seul either ate too little or too much as she worked toward her dream of becoming a fashion model.
But she is not tall enough or thin enough to be a model in usual fashion shows. And she is not big enough to be considered a plus-size model.
Park believed that the only way to meet South Korea’s beauty ideals was for her to deny who she truly is.
In South Korea, a woman weighing over 50 kilograms is considered by many to be big, no matter how tall she is. Park herself weighs 62 kilograms. She is 165 centimeters tall.
That is far from the ideal model body of 170 centimeters in height and 40 to 48 kilograms in weight.
Park, who is 25, has decided to call herself a “natural-size model.” She defines it as a model with the same kind of body you see in daily life, as opposed to a difficult-to-reach ideal.
She has started a YouTube channel, where she introduces styles for women who look more like her than the models in magazines.
Park said, “I used to think that my fat body wasn’t the real me and that living in such a body wasn’t my real life. I kept denying myself. I believed that my life would only become happy after I lost weight." She added, “I’ve come to think that I look good enough just the way I am.”
Sohn Hee-jeong is a researcher at the Institute of Gender Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. She says more women are now willing to challenge societal demands of their looks.
Cha Ji Won is an example. The 24-year-old runs a YouTube channel called “Korean Womyn.” She publishes videos of her daily life. She wears comfortable clothes and does not worry about her hair or makeup.
Cha says she eats whatever she wants and does not think about how much fat she is eating.
Cha told the Associated Press, “I hoped that by letting other women know that there is someone like me, I could remind them that they don’t have to care too much and spend so much money and time on their appearance.”
Hong is an 18-year-old high school student. She recently objected to a series of classes at her all-girls school. The classes included “Makeup for college freshmen,” ″Fashion styling for college freshmen” and “How to make a healthy body figure.” The classes were removed after Hong and other students told reporters about them.
A 2015 Gallup Korea report found that about one-third of South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 said they had had plastic surgery -- procedures to change their physical appearance.
Park Jiehyun works at Cosmopolitan Korea, a popular fashion magazine. She said, “I think South Korean women want to look perfect." She added, “They believe they should have a nice body and skin, beautiful eyes, nose and mouth, and even sleek hair with a perfect hairline."
But Park says rising feminist movements and changing values are redirecting how beauty is presented. In its December issue, Cosmopolitan Korea put a popular South Korean comedian, Lee Young-ja, on the cover. Lee is larger than most of the models the magazine has put on its cover.
But changes are still slow to reach professional workplaces. A 2018 employment survey from the Korean company Saramin found that female job seekers are often judged more for their looks than male job seekers.
Choi Min Jeong still remembers when her supervisor told her that she had to work harder because she was not as beautiful as one popular South Korean actress.
Choi, who worked at a company that produced drinks, said, “Although he said it as a joke, I thought it was ridiculous that he said it when my job was unrelated to appearance.”
Kwon Su Jeong worked for 24 years with Asiana, a major South Korean airline. Kwon is currently on leave from Asiana so she can work in Seoul’s city council. She says Asiana often demands female flight attendants to follow much more strict dress rules than males.
“They control everything, from your hairstyle to the color of your lipstick and nails to the length and shape of your earrings,” Kwon said.
Asiana strongly denied that it makes unfair demands or puts pressure on its employees to look a special way.